AMITY — It’s beautiful in bloom. You have to give canola that, if nothing else. The brilliant yellow glow coming from a 118-acre test plot at Scharf Farms looks like something out of Oz.
Opponents contend canola is more wicked than wonderful, but that’s what the field trials are intended to settle. As part of a three-year research project conducted by Oregon State University, a handful of growers are raising 490 acres of canola within a restricted zone that has long kept it separate from vegetable and specialty seed fields.
Farmers who raise the latter – a $32 million annual business in Oregon – believe aggressive canola will contaminate their valuable crops by cross-pollination. They say canola will be accompanied by pests and diseases that harm other plants.
“We argued against canola because we thought it was a risk,” said Greg Loberg, of West Coast Beet Seed Co.. “We hope that would become evident in the research.”
The risks to seed crops include pests, diseases and the proliferation of volunteers, said Loberg, who is public relations chair for the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association.
At the same time, association members recognize they have to let the research play out.
“We have to allow for the possibility that we are incorrect,” Loberg said.
Proponents have their points as well. Canola produces tiny, oil-rich seeds that can be crushed for food oil or bio-fuel, and the seed pulp is fed to dairy cows. Canola doesn’t require irrigation and can be planted and harvested with the same equipment used for grass seed and wheat. Farmers see canola as a valuable crop to grow in rotation with grass and grains.
“I’m not saying we’re going to plant the whole place to it,” said Jason Scharf, who is host to one of the test plots.
Dean Freeborn, a longtime proponent who also is raising one of the test plots, said he envisions a canola rotation of 100 to 150 acres per year among the 900 acres he farms.
The two sides have been arguing for more than a decade. Until now, Oregon managed the problem by establishing a 48- by 120-mile rectangle in the Willamette Valley — nearly 3.7 million acres — in which canola could not be grown without a permit. Some test plots were allowed in 2007-09, but no other permits were issued until the research began.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture tried to expand canola growing areas in 2012, but food safety activists and seed producers filed suit to block it. The state Court of Appeals sided with opponents, throwing the issue to the Legislature.
In 2013, the Legislature allocated $679,000 to OSU to conduct the research and asked for a report by November 2017. Carol Mallory-Smith, a respected OSU weed scientist known for identifying GMO wheat found growing in Eastern Oregon, is in charge of the canola project.
At a canola field day event held at Scharf Farms earlier this month, Mallory-Smith said she and assistants are tracking weather conditions at the test fields and surveying for diseases and insects. They’re also monitoring adjacent turnip and radish fields, which are related to canola.
Also attending the field day was Tomas Endicott, vice president of business development for Willamette Biomass Processors. Endicott has long advocated a valley canola industry, with his plant doing the oil extraction.
The canola being grown for the test is non-GMO. Farmers didn’t want the project complicated by another layer of controversy.
“That was part of the deal,” Scharf said. “Let’s fight our battles one at a time.”
Scharf figures canola will bring him about the same gross revenue per acre as wheat, but at half the input costs. That makes it an attractive option.
His interest stems from years of hearing his father and other farmers predict that a new, profitable crop would eventually come along.
“What is it?” Scharf asked. He believes canola may be the answer.